How many countries can you count which employ positive discrimination and affirmative action for foreigners? Turkey is the only one. The government is so desperate for hard currency, it is bending over backwards and jumping through hoops to rescue the tourism season.
“Turkey Unlimited. Now available without Turks,” reads a mock tourism advert on social media, poking fun at the sight of foreign tourists roaming quiet streets while most Turks are confined to home by a coronavirus lockdown, reports Reuters.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mr Mevlut Cavusoglu recently stated in a press briefing that by end of May “everyone a tourist can conceivably come in contact with will be vaccinated”. This is surely a novel and outrageously wasteful way of prioritizing vaccination in a country, which has only 6 mn doses left in its inventors.
The government has exempted foreign holidaymakers from the 2-1/2-week long lockdown in an effort to revitalise tourism, a critical sector of the Turkish economy. Those arriving in Turkey must show proof of negative COVID-19 tests.
But Turks on social media have voiced indignation at images of tourists partying on the country’s Mediterranean coast or locals slapped with fines for being outdoors while foreign visitors can wander around as they wish.
There is video making the rounds in WhatsApp which shows police raiding a beach to check IDs. There are three Turks in water who yell in broken English “We tourists, no passports”. Rumor has it, the tow policemen have waited on the sunny beach, taking their sweet time, until the water logged Turks had to surrender and be written up for the ca. $400 fine per person.
“This is a great time for the tourists now, because Turks can’t go out,” said tourist guide Kadir, 34 as he watched for customers outside Istanbul’s 15th-century Topkapi Palace. He brushed aside local frustrations about the lockdown.
“This is the way it has to be. The tourists have made payments and reservations. Tourism is important for Turkey and the wheels of the economy have to keep turning.”
Tourism revenues plunged by two-thirds to $12 billion last year as the pandemic hit an industry which accounts usually for up to 12% of the economy. Turkey hopes the current restrictions on movement will rescue this season.
But there are relatively few opportunities for Kadir, who said just 1,000 people were currently visiting the Ottoman palace each day, compared with a usual number of about 15,000.
Current visitors are mainly from Ukraine, Russia and Latin America, as well as British Pakistanis on their way back from trips to Pakistan, he said.
Turkey’s entry and testing regulations are so lax that there are reports of English tourists traveling first to Turkey to by-pass travel restrictions.
Outside the 17th-century Blue Mosque in the nearby Sultanahmet Square, tourists had mixed feelings about holidaying as Turkey battled to curb a COVID-19 wave which has put it fourth globally in the number of daily cases.
“The fact is, tourists spend money. All these places depend on tourists. If they weren’t here, everything would shut down,” said Faisal Cheema, 46, a restaurateur from Manchester, England, visiting for 10 days on his return from a visit to Pakistan.
“But it’s not good for tourists either. In COVID situations you should ban tourists too. If you lock down, you have to lock down proper,” he said at a souvenir shop in Sultanahmet.
Elsewhere in the usually bustling mega-city of 15 million, police set up checkpoints on main streets to check that those travelling in vehicles have permission to be out.
Locals are still allowed to carry out essential shopping in local grocery stores and millions of people involved in industrial production and key sectors have permission to go to work, but thousands have been fined for violating the lockdown.
Frustration at the restrictions was fuelled when a video circulated on social media this week showing a large crowd of foreign tourists partying at a hotel in the Mediterranean tourist hub of Antalya.
The incident was widely covered in Turkish media, prompting the Antalya governor to issue a statement saying the hotel’s “safe tourism” certificate had been cancelled and its operations halted for the duration of the pandemic.
The Tourism Ministry launched the certificate scheme last to reassure potential visitors to the country.
It is doubtful whether pandering to a fistful of tourists for a fistful of dollars will save the external balances. While daily Covid-19 cases decelerated from 60K to 22K thanks to the loose lockdown, PATurkey estimates, based on government figures, that at least 25 million adults have somewhat received corticates of exemption.
Moreover, those who traveled from three major metropolitan centers to their home towns to escape the lockdown have brought with them variants not found there. In a reported incident in the Black Sea city of Samsun, a person from Istanbul infected 56 relatives and acquaintances.
In the absence of Turkey securing at least 60 mn doses of vaccines by end of June and administering them effective to “anyone tourists can get in touch with”, the season will be lost, along with any vestiges of trust and respect for the Erdogan administration.
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